Are you overwhelmed, cranky, and absolutely drained from caring for your children and your parents? Is the weight of earning that paycheck, keeping track of your elderly parents medicines, insurance coverage, making that quality time with your children, putting food on the table, keeping your home decent, laundry clean and bills in order too much? Is the idea of self care a total anomaly?
The Path of Bitterness
I shared a post a few weeks back about the story of my aunt that had taken responsibility of caring for my now late grandmother. There were other siblings around to share in the responsibility and I don’t know the details, but somehow the bulk of the responsibility seemed to always land on my aunt for the last 10 years.
I shared how as my aunt balanced tending to my grandmother’s’ growing needs, parenting her 3 teen children, full time job and I had not mentioned that for over two of those years her husbands treatments of and recovery from cancer, she became more embittered and isolated as time went on. I suspect a depression had been setting in over the years from the sheer exhaustion.
The Sandwich Generation Dilemma
This is the story of millions in this country today that are called the “sandwich generation”. They are that sector of the population that is between the ages of 30 to 60 and are taking care of their kids and their aging parents. With the rising costs of healthcare and science helping people live longer this is a very real situation for many today.
Did you know that between 40 to 70% of caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression. According to Caregiver.org, approximately one quarter to one half of these caregivers meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression.
The Fork In the Road
Being in the position of providing care for adult loved ones and ones own children is mentally, emotionally, physically and financially demanding. Watching my aunt’s life shrink as she retreated into isolation is unfortunately common but it doesn’t have to be that way.
I live near a couple that has been devotedly caring for their own parents and grandchildren while still caring for themselves as neighbors. They are a retired couple and in the past 4 years that I have known them, they have been making 2 hour long trips (one way) weekly to be with their aging parents. They have been highly involved in overseeing their increasing medical, physical and emotional needs and just over 2 years ago they became grandparents. They have been highly involved in the care of their first grandchild while their daughter and son in law worked full time.
Self Care Vacations
Between the two of them they balanced, the at times chaotic juggling act of, caring for their grandchild 5 times a week while making those trips to care for their parents. With all that, they none the less kept up their daily meditation practice, whole foods diet and annual vacations 30 days at a time. They planned months in advance for their vacations by reaching out to friends, relatives and care giving professionals.
The Infamous Air Mask
Some would say that was selfish but they knew better and those that depended on them were all the more grateful. Just as the airline attendants on airplanes remind you to do, they were placing their air masks on first in order to be able to give quality care to those that depended on them.
I’ve always seen them upon returning from their vacations, refreshed, renewed and ready to continue giving in their devoted way. They are a vibrant couple living an active life as a sandwich generation. This is what it could be like.
I have mentioned the story of JJ Virgin in how she had set her self care as number one priority when her son survived being a victim of a hit and run and needed intensive care over a period of 4 years. Although her story is different in that she was not caring for her parents, but her two sons as a single mom, it is none the less an example of putting self care front and center in situations, that as a society, go against the grain.
The Two Paths in Care Giving
I’m not in the position of caring for my parents as of yet so don’t have direct experience with this. What I do have is having witnessed friends and family go through this, observed 2 basic directions one can go.
Sustainable Versus Unsustainable
There are those that have prioritized self care in the face of the pressure to drop it completely due to cultural norms and there are those that have dropped self care completely or never had it to begin with. One path leads to depression, isolation and martyrdom and the other path is one of resilience, resourcefulness and abundant compassion for self and others.
Here are the 3 most important things I’ve learned from these observations.
1)Self Care BEFORE The Care Taking Load Arrives
For some taking on the care of a parent’s occurs through an unexpected event like a fall or a stroke. For others it is foreseen through a slow decline of their parents cognitive and physical abilities. Having a routine of self care BEFORE that transition occurs makes all the difference in maintaining it during this new season of life. It’s much harder to start new habits when already in the midst of taking on a new lifestyle involving the added care of loved ones.
Although difficult it is not impossible if one begins in tiny steps like:
- Taking 10 minutes to take a walk outside rain or shine,
- Replacing one unhealthy meal with a wholesome one,
- Weekly bath if even for just 20 undisturbed minutes
- Writing 3 things in a gratitude journal before getting out of bed.
- Take out from the library an audiobook of your favorite novel or spiritual text. While in a commute or doing the mundane and necessary tasks around the house, put on headphones and let yourself go away mentally. Connect with an inspirational podcast through ITunes like Zen Habits, or learn something new through TED Talks or my all time favorite the Unmistakable Creative.
2)Invest in Quality Relationships
It can be easy to allow quality relationships to fall to the wayside while taking care of families. It’s paramount though when entering this phase of our lives. By quality I mean not just acquaintances and people that you hang out with, but those that you mutually show up for when there’s trouble and need.
Authentic relationships are those with which you can have real talk about what’s really going on with you. Who are those people that walk with you through the rough patches? Cut out relationships where in tough times the other punishes you, competes with you, condemns you or walks the other way.
Having a real friend to turn to to talk about the challenges that come up helps to give perspective about our situation in the scheme of things. If there are none, look to the event boards in hospitals for support group information.
3)Reach Out For Help
When you have quality relationships it makes all the difference when you need help in caring for your loved ones. Just to have someone to “keep an eye” while you run to the bank and not have to pack up the whole family up in order to do that, softens the rough edges of daily life.
Reach out to a friend or a neighbor that can keep an eye for 45 mins while you go to a zumba class or a long walk. My neighbors reached out to a number of friends and family that delegated and coordinated months in advance the care for their loved ones during their vacations.
JJ Virgin reached out to all she knew for help and it came in the form of quality food delivered to the hospital from Whole Foods, alternative therapies for her son and more.
Here are some great resources to check out as well
Here is a great workbook
Do you have a story of being in the sandwich generation or have witnessed others navigating this phase in life? What was your experience?
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As always thanks for making me a part of your day!